Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Can economics help you find a spouse?

[This post was originally published at on 9th August 2012]
That is the question reported Jessica Irvine put to me a couple of weeks ago. It is the type of question that instills fear in an economist. Why? Because the truthful answer can cause trouble at home.
What is the truthful answer? Here is what economist and now Australian parliamentarian Andrew Leigh told Irvine:
‘‘Economically, the answer to this is easy,’’ says Andrew Leigh, a federal Labor MP awarded the Economic Society of Australia’s young economist of the year award last year. ‘‘You’re solving an ‘optimal stopping’ problem. You know you’ve found ‘the one’ when you determine that the expected quality of all future matches is lower than the value of your current partner.”
You see the problem. Economics tells you that you should eventually settle in your search for a spouse. But for the Economist saying it, doesn’t that imply that he settled as well?
Leigh realized his problem and so immediately went what we could term the ‘sap route.’
In my case, I knew I wanted to pop the question to Gweneth [Leigh’s wife] because she made my heart beat faster each time she entered the room.
At this Olympian time, I believe we can score this using a diving analogy. The whole exercise had a degree of difficulty but there was some splash associated with Leigh’s re-entry. Basically, his answer was completely unrelated to the conundrum. Leigh appears to say that he settled but knows why he settled. By referencing the heart he alludes to abandoning his economic mind but we can’t really be sure.
Now let’s turn to the attempt by Rory Robinson. He is an economist but in the private sector:
A similarly sweet, but matter-of-fact, assessment is offered by Rory Robertson, a leading financial markets economist, of his wife. ‘‘In the process of choosing, my assessment was that my wife had the highest weighted-average of all the things I felt were important: looks, ‘compatibility’, kindness, inherent optimism, competence, diligence, and general enthusiasm for a happy life and family.’’
When I ask if he considers it fortunate his wife also assessed him as having the highest weighted-average of her preferences, Robertson replies: ‘‘Something like that, I’d like to think!’’
Robinson offers a longer CV for his partner’s attributes but ultimately is hedging. Again a splash.
Now you might be interested in what a disaster looks like. If so, let’s watch Tim Harcourt, author of The Airport Economist:
‘The economics of love or marriage is like search theory in the labour market. You start out with preferences about what you may like in a partner, but over time you may, if searching unsuccessfully, drop your ‘‘reservation wage’’ – ie lower your standards – to settle on a job or love match. I have a lot of great, smart, good-looking female friends in Sydney who seemed to have had to reduce their reservation wage over time.”
Oh dear. While he gets points for accuracy, in terms of any ‘at home constraint’ I think this one belly flopped. To be sure, Harcourt may have been quoted out of context but you can see just how difficult this exercise is.
Of course, you are by now wondering how I did at this dive. I guess the fact that I am drawing your attention and my spouse’s attention to it gives the answer. While it wasn’t published my opening set-up was this.
… Dateonomics is about finding the right ‘other parent’ for your future children. Economics has a lot to say about that in much the same way it has a lot to say about finding the right employees for your business.
But you can now watch the actual dive:
Economist and author of ‘‘Parentonomics’’, Joshua Gans, says that in looking for that perfect parent for your unborn child, it doesn’t make sense to wait around for Mr or Ms Perfect.
‘‘In the search for the right [partner], economics tells us that you would almost always settle. You search and there are search costs. A rational person should have an optimal stopping rule and if that rule is to find the perfect match out of 7 billion living people, mathematics tells us you will never stop. Except, of course, in my case where settling turned out to be indistinguishable from optimising! For everyone else, they have settled and so if your spouse isn’t perfect you can at least take comfort in the fact that you saved the costs of shopping around.’’
That last bit was the ‘money quote’ for the article. But it was the middle where I took myself out from the entire population as an exception. My spouse didn’t buy any of it (she is too much of a rational engineer to believe in exceptions) but did offer up an “I love you too dear” for effort. I’ll take that as, “I made it!”
Irvine’s entire piece on Dateonomics will appeal to readers of this blog as will likely her new book, Zombies, Bananas and Why There are no Economists in Heaven. There are no economists in heaven? Makes sense. Most economists I know pretty much adhere to the thought experiments in John Lennon’s Imagine which pretty much rules heaven out.